Flipper: 40 years of chaos—a Stephen DePace interview, Part 1

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      If you don’t know it already, before reading this, take a few minutes and listen to Flipper’s “Sex Bomb.”

      You can stop once you get the idea: it’s an eight minute long song based around a single, simple line of lyric (“She’s a sex bomb, my baby, yeah”), sometimes screamed, sometimes howled, and sometimes even sung, with various other screams and yelps besides; it has an equally simple (if hooky) bass figure and a straightforward, steady beat; a fairly normal (if skronky) saxophone; and a very strange sheet of overlaid guitar noise that sounds like no other guitars you’ve ever heard.  There’s also something—a toy?—that sounds like a singing saw, making a periodic tuneless whistle (it’s actually an electronic drum sound—a “synare,” drummer Stephen DePace tells me). “Sex Bomb” is stupid in a very smart way, making fun of the asininity of rock, while still getting off on it; call it rock music for people who are too intelligent to be fully convinced by rock music, but who still want to get wasted and thrash around.  

      What you need to understand at the outset was that, besides Flipper, in 1981—when “Sex Bomb” first appeared—punk rock did not sound like this. The closest precedent that you could tap in the world of punk would be the Stooges’ immense title track off Fun House,  but even “Sex Bomb”—one of Flipper’s least punishing, most user-friendly songs—is a chaotic epic by comparison. Songs like this show why they’re described as “a key forerunner to sludge” on their Wikipedia page, and seen as the influence on the “slowing down” of punk, witnessed on side two of Black Flag’s My War, in the music of the Melvins, and eventually throughout the grunge scene. There was a good reason that Kurt Cobain wore a homemade Flipper T-shirt for the In Utero shoot, or that Krist Novoselic briefly joined Flipper for one later incarnation: they were a band that changed things, that opened the door to the concept of long, noisy, and sometimes punishingly slow jams in punk, and there are tons of articles written from that perspective, through the lens of what came after, talking about how influential Flipper was.

      In no way do we wish to argue with that. Flipper was influential. But it needs to be noted: nothing in punk rock since Flipper’s initial volley of albums—everything that came before the death of “Sex Bomb” vocalist Will Shatter, of a heroin overdose, in 1987—has sounded quite like this. They may have influenced the Melvins and Nirvana and sludge metal and so forth, but that doesn’t mean that they sound like them. 

      It’s not all “Sex Bomb,” all the time, mind you. There are shorter, faster songs, mostly written by the other bassist/vocalist/songwriter of the, band Bruce Lose—later spelled Bruce Loose. Try “Living for the Depression”, for example: it’s still noisy, rough-hewn, and amusingly tongue-in-cheek, but it is identifiable as punk rock.  

      There are also some unusually philosophical moments in Flipper’s catalogue, like the existentialist anthem “Shed No Tears”, also by Shatter—about accepting the choices of suicides and martyrs, and not wasting ones grieving on beaten nuns or shot policemen (“he once held the gun/he once held the key/now his prisoners will sing and dance and play!”). 

      Or there’s “In Life My Friends”, which is maybe Loose’s own most philosophical outing. The lyrics were apparently adapted by Loose from the writings of a 19th-century Methodist Reverend (and extraterrestrial enthusiast!), William Shuler Harris, with music written by Flipper’s guitarist, Ted Falconi. Loose sings, “be not deceived by the toiler’s thrift/get what you can as nature’s gift/let all things take an easy drift/til all comes right.” It’s a slacker anthem from before the concept of being a slacker existed. If you’re wondering how that squares with the tenets of Methodism, note that the original poem by Harris, in his book Sermons by the Devil, was entitled “Satan’s Song to Encourage Idleness and Indifference”, and was meant to be read as BAD advice. 

      And then there are legends of truly punishing versions of songs. “I have heard tales of us playing a single song for 40 minutes,” DePace says. Songs like “The Wheel”—which mostly has only one lyric, “I am the wheel,” repeated over and over and over—“could certainly have gone on for 20 minutes or more.”

      Is that song referring to the medieval torture device, by the way, as in “broken on the wheel?” “Only Will Shatter knows the meaning of ‘The Wheel.’ He took it to his grave"

      With all this in mind, and apropos of Flipper’s upcoming concert in Vancouver, the Straight sat down to what turned into a lengthy phone conversation with Stephen DePace, drummer of Flipper. With Falconi, DePace is one of two original members playing the Astoria on June 7. David Yow of the Jesus Lizard—replacing both the deceased Shatter and Loose, who is in too poor a health to tour—will be fronting the band, and their friend Rachel Thoele will be joining them on bass. 

      With Yow on the verge of abandoning music for an acting career – witness his meaty, fun role in Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, say, or his deranged turn in the anthology horror film Southbound  – it may be not only your only chance to see Flipper in any form, but your last chance to see Yow sing. (You can see him lead Flipper through his own reading of “Sex Bomb” here, complete with a guest kazooist, playing the instrument the wrong way ‘round, in place of a horn section).

      GS: So what were you doing before Flipper, and how did Flipper get started—where did you come up with your style of music, your philosophy?

      SDP: My very first band that I joined was not at the very beginning of the San Francisco punk scene, but soon after it started, within a couple of years. I discovered the punk scene in San Francisco in 1977, and I think that’s when it was really taking off—it may have technically started in 1976, but it really took hold in 1977, and I started going to shows at this club called the Mabuhay Gardens, which kinda served as the central clubhouse for the punk scene in San Francisco. It was open seven nights a week, and they had three bands playing each night. It was a really great opportunity for people who wanted to become involved in the scene or be part of it. And that included not only musicians and bands and so forth, but there was a pretty big art scene in San Francisco going on. A lot of the kids were going to the San Francisco Art Institute or other art schools, in San Francisco. So there were artists of all kinds—photographers, poets, musicians, people who started doing film, y’know, and there were writers and people of all sorts. There was a guy named Joe Rees, who started a company called Target Video, and he was the first guy, one of the first people who had, I think it was called a Nakashimi video camera. I think that was the brand. [Note—I can find no mention of this elsewhere but I do notice a Nakamichi video camera]. It was a big, huge thing that sat up on your shoulder, and it was in the early days of video. So he was there documenting all the bands that played at the Mabuhay. So we have a lot of that early stuff documented.


      So my first band was a band called Negative Trend. We did a four song EP that came out really cool, and that was my first experience recording. We played shows in San Francisco, and we did a little Pacific Northwest tour. We played with D.O.A. in Vancouver and the Dils in Seattle. And we played in Portland, and put out this record. And then I left that band—I was actually fired from that band, and myself and the singer [Mikal Waters] were let go, unceremoniously, for no apparent reason, other than that it was really [Craig Grey], the guitar player’s, band, and he decided he wanted to make a change. And so we were notified that we were being let go. The singer went on to start another band, and Will Shatter, who was a member of Flipper, at that time was also in Negative Trend,  he remained in Negative Trend, and they did another version, with another singer and another drummer. 

      So I was kind of in limbo and between bands for a little while. This took place in 1978. I may have been without a band for gosh, I dunno, somewhere between six months and a year. And that third version of Negative Trend broke up, and Will Shatter somehow got together with a guy named Ted Falconi. He had been in a couple of bands. I was familiar with Ted, and Negative Trend had played with one of both of his bands along the way. He had a band called Rad Command and another band that I can’t think of right now. 

      Somehow or another, Ted and Will got together, after Negative Trend ultimately broke up, and they somehow got a hold of Ricky Williams, who had been in a really great band called the Sleepers, who I had also played with, in Negative Trend—we had played shows together. I believe I was kind of the last guy to come on board, and as I recall, Ted Falconi ran into me at a party somewhere and told me that he and Will and Ricky needed a drummer, and asked me if I’d come see what was going on, check it out. So I did, and we started rehearsing, and started writing songs right away. So insofar as any sort of conscious thought of what the band was going to sound like, or style of music or attitude or anything else, there was no plan for that, we just came together in a rehearsal studio and started making noise, quite literally, and cranking up the amps and kickin’ out a drumbeat, and Ricky would start singing. And we started coming up with songs. We did two or three of these rehearsals, and came up with a handful of pretty good songs. 

      Did any of those survive, or morph into songs that Flipper fans know?

      We wrote some songs with Ricky, but we never recorded any of them. We performed them with Ricky for the handful of shows we did with him, but when he left the band we stopped performing those songs. 

      He came up with the name Flipper, too, right?

      There’s a little bit of a backstory to it, as well. But—at one point, we had just finished playing whatever song it was, and there was a quiet moment between songs, and Will Shatter turned to us all and said, “well, this seems to be working out!” There was a good vibe in the room, and we all liked each other and were getting along and creating music, and everything seemed to be going well, so at that point Will turned around and said, “We’re gonna need a name. What do you all think?” So there was a few seconds of silence, and then Ricky Williams was the first one to speak up and said, “How about Flipper?” I remember that very vividly. And we all kind of paused for a moment, and no other suggestions popped up, so we all said, “okay.” And it was kind of that simple.

      The backstory to that was that Ricky loved the name Flipper. Like, I didn’t find out about this until many years of later, but Ricky had a menagerie of pets at home. He had cats, dogs, goldfish, lizards, birds, you name it—all these different pets—and all of them were called Flipper. I found this out much later, from people who lived with him and people who knew him, they told me how everything was named Flipper. So he naturally suggested the name Flipper for the band! (Chuckles). So that’s how it came to be. 

      We continued writing, and started playing shows. Unfortunately, Ricky loved drugs. And this was before anyone else in Flipper was really doing anything like that. And he loved downers, and he had doctors who gave him prescriptions for all these different kinds of downers—Quaaludes and Seconals, Reds and Rainbows and you name it. So he had a lot of pills, and I think he was doing heroin as well. So anyway, we did pull of some shows—I can’t remember how many, but I remember one show in particular, where Ricky had this signature move onstage. Ricky was a great frontman. He was a really good singer, great lyricist, he had a great image. I remember from seeing Sleepers shows, he was great. And he had this really cool move onstage where he would grab the mike stand—the straight-up-and-down microphone stand with the heavy bottoms—and he would swing it around. That was kinda his rockstar move onstage. And one night he hit Will Shatter square between the eyes with the bottom half of this heavy mike stand and knocked him out cold. He hit the stage and just was unconscious, and for the rest of his life he had a scar, and inch or so long, right between his eyes. It was a perfect strike! After that – we didn’t fire him at that point, but very soon after that, Ricky became impossible to work with. He would not show up at rehearsals – he was later or he wouldn’t show up. And he was pretty much of a mess, a Sid Vicious mess-type of guy. And he had a couple of girls who used to be—he called them his handlers, and they would carry him around from place to place, quite literally sometimes, like one under each shoulder, holding him up and walking him around. So I remember clearly, I sorta took the lead with this; I had had enough of his antics, and so I said to the girls, one time—I believe it was because he was really late for rehearsal, and he was too messed up to talk to—so I talked to the girls and said, “look, we have rehearsal here tomorrow night at 6 o’clock, and if he’s not here at 6pm sharp, he’s fired. So tell him this later on, when he wakes up.”

      The next day, I was waiting at the loading dock of this rehearsal studio, at 6 p.m., and the girls showed up, they drove up in their car. They were right on time. They pulled into the loading dock, they opened up the back door of the car, and Ricky was unconscious in the car. And they looked at me, and they both said, “he’s here on time!” You know, they thought was all good – they got him there on time. And they literally pulled him out of the car and dumped him on the loading dock, and he was 100% unconscious. I put him on this dolly and wheeled him into the room and dumped him onto the floor, and he remained unconscious. I turned on the microphone, put it down by his mouth, and he was snoring. (Laughs). He was snoring over the PA system, and we all had kind of a laugh about it. And we told the girls, “I’m sorry, but he’s done. Whenever he wakes up, just tell him it’s over.”

      So that was the end of Ricky. We did a handful of shows, wrote maybe 10 songs with him, and that was that. I don’t quite recall how Bruce Loose came into the band, but he was next up—all of a sudden he was in the band, and that was the lineup for the next seven years, or whatever. 

      Stepping back a bit, it’s interesting to me that you were going to punk shows that early, in 1976 or '77. That’s a very early time. What bands were active—who did you see?

      Yeah—in terms of punk bands… one thing to note, even though the Mabuhay Gardens was sort of punk central for San Francisco, the promoters name was Dirk Dirksen, and he was a real character. He’d come from television production. He gave all these bands a chance to play, and it was very, very eclectic at that time. It wasn’t necessarily all punk rock. There were rock bands, and metal bands, and new wave bands, and, y’know, a variety of bands came through. There was a great percussion artist by the name of Z’EV, who used to put out all these different percussion things out on the stage and smoke a big joint while he was banging on everything. And Devo played there, numerous times—their first tours around the country. 

      But bands from San Francisco that were active at the time, in 1977—there was a band called the Offs, there was the Avengers, the Nuns, the Ted’s band Rad Command. There were quite a few punk bands happening, and in fact, that’s what led me to Negative Trend, because before I joined Negative Trend, there was a version of Negative Trend—the first version; there were three in total—that I saw. That was one of the first shows I saw there. And they had a singer by the name of Rozz Rezabeck. He was a tall, skinny guy, and he did something… this was my first introduction to quote-unquote punk rock, and all the crazy things that happened – and it was sort of a weeknight, and there weren’t that many people there. The Mabuhay, during the weeknights, would have these little nightclub tables. On the weekend, they would take them away, and everybody would pack out onto the front, but on the weeknights, they had these little tables. I was sitting at one of these tables, and they came onstage, and there were a few other people sitting at these tables. And the singer wanted to make a point that he wanted everybody to get off their chairs and be up front. Well, what he did to make his point was, he went out into the audience, grabbed one guy by the lapels of his jacket or shirt, pulled him out of the chair, and then picked the chair up and smashed it over the table. And then he went and did this to somebody else as well. He didn’t do it to me, but he did it to a couple of different people, and I thought that was the most incredible, amazing thing I’d ever seen. I had two simultaneous thoughts in my head: “Wow, that’s the craziest thing I’ve seen,” and “this band is not getting paid tonight.” So…

      Then I was hitting the clubs more and more, and I went out on a weekend night, and a band called the Avengers [who would later include Brad Kent of DOA in their lineup] were playing, and they were fantastic. They were the best band I had seen on that level. I was just, probably 19 or so, at this point in time, and I was familiar with dance clubs, as far as clubs went, and I had been to a few comedy clubs, but I had grown up going to Winterland and seeing bigger concerts at bigger venues, stadium shows, stuff like that, but I had never been to small clubs with smaller bands. This was a new thing for me, and I was seeing a lot of bands. And so one night, I saw this band the Avengers, and in that setting, these bands were approachable. You could talk to them; they’d be wandering around the club after they played, or whatever, and you could go say hi, and talk. So I approached the bass player. I knew how to play drums. I had never been in a band before, but I had a drum kit, and I knew how to play drums, I could play a beat, and I was ready to make that leap, from playing in my garage to joining a real band. And I approached the bass player [Jimmy Wilsey]—in those days, people called you by your first name and then whatever your band’s name was, so everybody called him Jimmy Avenger, and I introduced myself and asked him how one would go about getting into a band, in the scene there. He told me to go to the well-known punk rock record store, which was called Aquarius Records, in San Francisco, and I could put up a little notice on the bulletin board: “Drummer looking for punk band.” And a few days later I got a call from Will Shatter, who told me he was in this band called Negative Trend, and that they were holding auditions for a new drummer and a new singer. And I said, “wow, I saw your band play! Your singer was crazy, he pulled the guy out of the chair, he broke the chair—you guys were great!” 

      So he goes, “yeah, the singer quit and moved to Portland, and we fired the drummer because he was too drunk all the time, so we’re holding auditions.” So I went and auditioned, I got the gig, and this other singer, really great singer by the name of Mikal Waters, from Australia. So that was the lineup I was in, the second version of the band.

      Okay, cool. So going back to Flipper—I gather that Ted was in Viet Nam? I don’t know if there are stories around that, but I’m curious how his style of guitar playing evolved, because those early Flipper things, no one I know I know was playing guitar in that noisy a fashion in rock, back then. Was it always like that?

      It was like that from the beginning of Ted’s musical career. He was in a couple of bands prior to Flipper. I’ve heard him tell this story, so I can tell you what it is. Yes, he was a Viet Nam vet, and he came out of Viet Nam—I think he did three tours, not full tours—he did one short tour and one full tour… anyway, he was in Viet Nam three different times. And when he came back, he went to art school, and he graduated from art school, and at one point in time got a Master’s Degree in art or music or something. He was studying the MOOG Synthesizer, so he was into art and music both in school, and he became an art teacher at one point in time. He went to art school with a fellow I’ve mentioned already, who started Target Video, by the name of Joe Rees. They went to art school together. They went way back, and when they got out of school, Joe started his company and Ted was hanging out. Another one of the bands that was happening at the time was a band called the Mutants, and that was a pretty incredible band, pretty colourful, very good songs, et cetera. And Ted was buddies with one of the guys in that band. So Ted would go visit this guy, who had a huge model plane collection—the guy built model planes as a hobby. And he let Ted stay at his warehouse. He had electric guitars laying around, and Ted had never had any experience with an electric guitar. Like I say, he had studied music in school, but had no experience with amplified instruments; I think he played around with synthesizers, so that may be where some of the noise factor came in. 

      And Ted put on a guitar, cranked up the amp, and started making noise with it, and just kinda fell in love with the kind of noise that an electric guitar could make, and then as far as his style—as long as I’ve known him, he has never played any kind of traditional guitar style, at all. He doesn’t strum the guitar in any sort of normal style; I think he kind of uses the electric guitar as an instrument of noise. He gets the sound out of it that he wants out of his amplifiers and distortion boxes, and his guitar and whatnot, but he just figured out this weird strange way of strumming; he knows what chords are, and he plays barre chords and chords, but the way he plays with the pick is unique, no one else does that, he kind of chops away at the strings, rather than strumming them. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that, but he plays in a very different, unique style. There’s nobody that plays like him; you can’t even really transcribe what he’s doing. 

      I haven’t listened closely to his guitar parts from live recordings and then compared them to studio recordings, so—is he doing the same thing, when he plays the song live…?

      You mean between live and studio? Yeah, he’s doing the same thing. Now, in studio recordings, he usually does more than one track. He’ll double up and thicken it up a bit more. He tries to play sort of the same way live, where he’ll have – I think he prefers to play with two cabinets. A lot of the time he can’t do that when we’re travelling. But he likes to play through two separate cabinets, and he’ll have one a little bit cleaner, and one way dirty, so that he can combine the two. But in studio, he’ll have a clean track, and a really distorted track, and mix the two, but a clean track from Ted is nothing like a clean track from somebody else. A clean track from Ted is the most distorted thing any other guitar player has ever played. I’ve had this experience and I’ve told this story, that in studio, when you’re mixing down tracks, you solo each instrument and turn the knobs and get all the tones and sounds you want from each instrument. In my case, for drums, each and every drum that has a microphone on it has its own track; we’ll record with 24 tracks on a tape, so that’s 24 microphones you can have. So I’d use up ten or so tracks just on the drums, and you go to each and every thing and make all the adjustments to get the sounds you want. So Ted would have two different tracks going, so he’d have his live track that he played in the room with us, and he’d go back and do another one or two tracks to kind of layer the sound. And anyway, when you get down to soloing each instrument, and when you would solo the guitar – you’d listen to just the guitar, with no other instruments coming through the speakers – listening to that guitar is the most mind-bending, mind-twisting, brain-damaging thing you’ve ever listened to in your life. It’s so bizarre that you brain has a hard time making sense of it. If it’s not in the context of all the other instruments and the song as a whole—in that context, it makes sense, what he’s doing, and the songs coming out of the guitar. They make sense in the context of the whole song. But when you isolate just his guitar—this is my own opinion, based on my experience of music, but your brain just can’t make sense of what you’re hearing. It’s the most weird thing you’ve heard in your life, it’s so distorted, and the way he plays and the noise that comes out of the guitar… it’s so bizarre. But then you bring in all the other instruments, it fits and it makes sense. Because there’s a bass guitar—the bass guitar is really the melody, the drums are the rhythm, and then you’ve got the vocals over top, and all this kinda noise. He is playing chords, so he’s matching up with what the bass is doing, but—it somehow works! I can’t really describe it beyond that, but it’s pretty weird.

      Can you speak to the differences between Will and Bruce, as songwriters? I’m particularly a fan of Will’s songs like “Shed No Tears,” or, say, the lyric from “Life,” that “life is the only thing worth living for.” Particularly on Will’s songs, it seems like there’s a heavy and thought out background to these songs... like, this is existentialist punk.  

      Well—we were fortunate—it added an extra element, because we had two guys instead of just one, each of them with their own style and philosophies and humour, who would switch off vocal duties and who wrote lyrics. Nine times out of ten, whichever one wrote the lyrics would sing the song. There were maybe one or two exceptions to that, where one sang the other’s lyrics. But they both had different minds and came up with different lyrics. Will wrote “Life,” and he also wrote “Shed No Tears,” and he sang both those songs. Moreso now than ever, I appreciate the fact that we had two different guys, two different writers, too different singers, it gave us an extra element, an extra variety. And it all worked—if you listen to Generic Flipper, the album, there were two different singers, but it all worked, it all sounded like Flipper. I guess there’s other bands that have had more than one singer…

      But I dunno, we were lucky in that we had that extra element. It was pretty cool. So Bruce wrote “Ha Ha Ha” and sang that song, and that’s one attitude and one kind of sense of humour and so forth. Will Shatter was a little more cynical, but at the same time wrote that “life is the only thing worth living for,” which is pretty poignant. Now more than ever, in 2019, where we’ve lost so many people in our punk rock scene, so many people have died, much sooner than they should have—some for health reasons, and a lot from drugs and alcohol—life is still the only thing worth living for. I wish people had thought about that back in the day, and not gotten into what killed them… Anyway, we’ve sort of taking that on in our 40th-anniversary celebration, that’s kind of our motto: “life is the only thing worth living for,” celebrating all of us that are still alive. That was kind of my thought in launching this 40th anniversary stuff. 

      Flipper (with David Yow) plays the Astoria on June . More to come!